Ah, summer in the southern US: sunny days, green landscapes, meals made with luscious garden harvests, evenings of cicada songs and lightning bugs. There are plenty of reasons to travel to the south in the summertime, but such journeys through these parts all have one thing in common: it’s hot out there, y’all.
Everyone loves finding a good body of water to beat the heat. Here is our list of oases perfect for cooling off after spending some time in that sticky-sweet summer sun. Be sure to contact these destinations before you head out.
Buffalo National River – Arkansas
This river is one of the only ones in the lower 48 states to flow freely without interruption from a dam, and it's the first one to receive designation as a National River. It winds for 135 miles through northern Arkansas, passing by sheer granite cliffs and other fascinating geology formed over thousands of years of interaction between the area’s limestone karst landscape and bodies of water. You’ll want to take your time and soak it all in, as the river is surprisingly clear – float along the cerulean waterway in a kayak or canoe through the Buffalo’s upper, middle or lower districts.
The Buffalo does not charge an entrance fee, and primitive campgrounds run $20 a night (Call ahead to see what facilities are open). Other activities include horseback riding and stargazing – Buffalo National River was designated as an International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) last year.
Ginnie Springs – Florida
Located just 40 minutes from Gainesville, Ginnie Springs is a privately owned nature park encompassing seven individual freshwater springs and over 200 acres along the Santa Fe River. This spring system truly has it all: crystal-clear 72-degree water where visitors can snorkel and scuba dive (scuba newbies can even do their training here), various camping options ranging from tent campsites to cabins and opportunities to tube, kayak and stand-up paddleboard on the neighboring river. Particularly, scuba divers seek out the springs to explore its impressive underwater cave system.
Admission for adults runs around $14 for a day pass, and camping passes come in at $22 per person. The nature park also offers a number of equipment rentals for the aforementioned activities.
Tallulah Gorge State Park – Georgia
Just two hours north of Atlanta, southern travelers will find Tallulah Gorge State Park, home to an impressive 1,000-foot-deep gorge formed by the Tallulah River, Tallulah Falls (a series of falls observable from lookouts) and Tallulah Falls Lake. The park only issues 100 permits to hike to the gorge floor per day; arrive in the morning for your best chance of snagging one. On the bright side, the permit is free, and it affords access to the gorge’s more challenging trails, including the one leading to Sliding Rock where, you guessed it, hikers can slide down a series of slippery flat rocks after an afternoon of hiking.
If you miss out on the permit or would rather leave the more difficult hikes to intrepid types, you can still take in the view from scenic overlooks around the gorge rim (and the iconic suspension bridge that spans the chasm) and take a dip in the lake from one of its sandy beaches.
A few days throughout the year, the gorge’s dam opens for water releases; check the park website, as the gorge floor closes to hikers (but not to experienced kayakers) during these times.
Lure Lake – North Carolina
The Blue Ridge Mountains are things of beauty by themselves, and a lake perfectly placed at their feet just adds another layer of magic for travelers passing through the southern Appalachians. Lake Lure is located a little under an hour from energetic Asheville, another North Carolina favorite, and it’s perhaps best known as one of the filming locations for Dirty Dancing. Those looking to take a dip will find every water sport in the book, along with an inviting beach backed by the historic Lake Lure Inn (built in 1927).
Hikers and rock climbers looking for more outdoor adventure should head to nearby Chimney Rock State Park, where they can hike miles of trails (including one to its namesake rock formation) or scale a number of vertical rock faces.
Harpeth River – Tennessee
Everyone likes a lazy river, and it’s even better when said river is just a stone’s throw from one of the South’s most popular cities. Located only 30 minutes outside of Nashville, the namesake river of Harpeth River State Park is a perfect option for families looking for a little slow-paced water action. A handful of outfitters based in Kingston Springs, Tennessee, run kayak and canoe drop-ins (our favorite is Foggy Bottom Canoe), and once you hit the water, you’re free to move at your own pace down the meandering curves of the Harpeth. The shores are lined with rocky beaches where you can pull off and relax before hopping on down the current, perfect places for a respite from the honky-tonk chaos of downtown Nashville.
Word of warning: the Harpeth is subject to rising water levels after rainy days, and the outfitters close when the water gets too high, fast and/or muddy. Check their social media accounts for weather-oriented updates before you make the trip out.
Cumberland Falls and Eagle Falls – Kentucky
This double-whammy offers all of the waterfall enchantment you can dream of. While you can’t swim at Cumberland Falls itself, this cascade is one of the few places in the world where you can witness a moonbow, a mystical, nighttime version of everyone’s favorite light phenomenon. On select days throughout the year, the light from the moon hits the mist from the falls just so, creating a rare spectacle that will delight rainbow lovers of any age.
During the day, take the moderate trail to the nearby Eagle Falls, where you can take in great views of the waterfall before hopping in the water for a refreshing dip.
Hippie Hole at Little River Canyon – Alabama
Martha Falls, aka Little Falls, aka “Hippie Hole”– this place has many names – is the epitome of a perfect swimming hole. This big blue pool welcomes visitors with calm, cool waters, and falls you can swim right under, serving as an ideal stop after a hot day on the road. The falls are located within the Little River Canyon National Preserve, which is also home to some short trails, kayaking breaks and horseback riding trails.
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This article was originally published in July 2019 and updated in May 2020.